The City in Fiction and Film, week 21: My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985)

767_BD_box_348x490_originalweek 20

This week we took a step back to think about Black British cinema, but not before picking up on the questions of diaspora discussed last week.

William Safran argues that they are six key characteristics of diaspora:

  • Diaspora refers to people who have ‘been dispersed from a specific original “center” to two or more “peripheral,” or foreign, regions’
  • Diaspora refers to these dispersed communities when they ‘retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements’
  • Diasporic communities believe that ‘they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it’
  • Diasporas overwhelmingly ‘regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate’
  • Diasporic communities ‘believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration or their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity’
  • Diasporic communities often ‘relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship’

 

Robin Cohen can provide four further tweaks to our understanding of the concept:

  • Diasporas may include ‘groups that scatter for aggressive or voluntaristic purposes’, including revolutionary minorities struggling for a homeland and those travelling for trade reasons
  • Diasporic consciousness depends upon a ‘strong tie to the past or a block to assimilation in the present and future’
  • Diasporas are also defined positively – diasporic consciousness recognises ‘the positive virtues of retaining a diasporic identity’, as well as a ‘tension between an ethnic, a national and a transnational identity’ that is ‘often creative [and] enriching’
  • Members of a diaspora share ‘a collective identity in a place of settlement, putative or real homeland … and with co-ethnic members in other countries’

 

And finally, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur argue that diaspora can be understood as a critique of nation and globalization:

  • Diasporas transmit information, finance, remitted capital and desire across the international borders of nation-states, connecting to those left behind
  • Diasporas are also global capitalist economic formations created by push/pull factors of national economies, regional trading blocs, and other global forces (outmigration and remittance, outsourcing of labour, importation of multinational corporations)
  • Ultimately, diasporas may be produced by power, but it is not always able to control what it produces

As these authors show, diaspora is a complex, contested and sometimes fuzzy concept – and although this can be frustrating when you want to use the idea/term with precision, it is ultimately a good thing since it invites you into a conversation about its meaning, it gives a much bigger picture of human movement around the globe, both historically and in the present moment, and it keeps you from slipping into the kind of simple-minded ‘thinking’ about migration that mainstream media typically evokes in contexts of crisis and panic.

In the 1960s-80s, ‘Black British’ was adopted as an identity by many Britons from the Asian, African and Caribbean diasporas. It was an umbrella term devised and used

not only to trample on a history of negation, but also to find a cohesive voice in order to fight collectively for greater political rights and better representation. It was the shared experience of both colonialism and British racism which united Black British citizens and allowed them to construct an identity for themselves. (Malik 204)

In the 1960s, occasional isolated examples of Black British cinema appeared, typically narrative shorts – such as Lionel Ngakane’s 29-minute Jemima and Johnny (1963) and Lloyd Reckord’s 12-minute Ten Bob in Winter (1963) – or short documentaries – such as Horace Ové’s 46-minute Baldwin’s Nigger (1969), featuring James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, and his 60-minute concert movie Reggae (1970), featuring the Pyramids, Pioneers, Black Faith, Millie, Maytals and Desmond Dekker.

The gradually emerging Black British cinema has been described as ‘the cinema of duty’ – as Cameron Bailey (qtd in Malik 203–4) explains:

Social issue in content, documentary-realist in style, firmly responsible in intention – [the cinema of duty] positions its subjects in direct relation to social crisis, and attempts to articulate “problems” and “solutions to problems” within a framework of centre and margin, white and non-white communities. The goal is often to tell buried or forgotten stories, to write unwritten histories, to “correct” the misrepresentations of the mainstream.

That James Baldwin should then appear in one of the first Black British films is not insignificant, given his own struggle as a writer with the burden of representation, and against being positioned as a spokesperson for African Americans; also, that as a gay author writing about gay and bisexual men (e.g., Giovanni’s Room (1956)), he opens up the importance of intersectionality even when it is strategically important to draw on a larger political identity, such as Black British.

Although it is often easy in retrospect to bemoan texts that are burdened with dutifulness, Jim Pines (again qtd in Malik 204) reminds us that

Such films are important for the way in which they “answered back” to … the “official race relations narrative” … by offering an alternative view of diasporic experience.

In 1975, Horace Ové made the first feature film by a Black British director, Pressure, co-written by Sam Selvon. Broadly neo-realist in style, it follows Tony (Herbert Norville), a second generation Black Briton, whose parents migrated from Trinidad, and captures the day-to-day experience, the lived texture, of blackness in a white racist country. We watched the agonising scene in which Tony goes for a job interview at the county council for a junior accountancy post, and no one was expecting a black teenager to apply. Similar films soon followed, such as Black Joy (Simmons 1977) and Babylon (Rosso 1981); and the first British Asian film, A Private Enterprise (Peter Smith 1975).

Such films tended to fall back into depicting characters as ‘trapped between cultures’, with assimilation into Britishness as the best outcome, and into thinking in overly simplistic terms of positive and negative images (as if there were some kind of single objective position from which such judgments could be made). Also, by adopting social realist visual and narrative style, which tend to be invisible to viewers, the films tended to have the effect of reinforcing the notion that ‘this is the way it is’.

In the 1980s, Black British Cinema can be understood in terms of the development of two production sectors: commercial independent production companies, such as Kuumba Productions, Anancy Films, Penumbra Productions, and Social Film and Video, which were commissioned by mainstream television to produce programming; and grant-aided or subsidised workshops, such as Sankofa, Ceddo, Black Audio Film Collective, Retake, Star, Birmingham Film and Video Workshop, which were – among other things – committed to training people to make films. The workshop sector tended to produce more experimental films (including documentary) rather than narrative features, although this was partly a consequence of what funding bodies were interested in; and as John Akomfrah and others have noted, the sector’s freedom from commercial imperatives gave filmmakers time and space to think, be critical, develop new modes of representing Black people.

And in the 1980s and 1990s, Black British cinema began to emerge as a significant – and commercial – phenomenon, with such films as Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), Wild West (Attwood 1992), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993) and Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995). Still struggling with the burden of representation, and with the need to be financially successful, they nonetheless tried to address identity in often complex terms. As Sarita Malik writes,

They refuse a simple focus on racial politics and acknowledge other facets of identity. They are multilayered and complex films, not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of genre, style and film form. As such, they render redundant those critical discourses which depend on the rigid dichotomies of Black versus White, negative versus positive, representative versus unrepresentative, realism versus fantasy, and so on. (210–11)

In the 1990s and 2000s, Black British cinema effectively split in two – partly as a consequence of a broader cultural shift from collective to identity politics. Currently, we have in effect black British cinema and British Asian cinema. The former tends to be comprised of films about inner city deprivation and criminality. Drawing on social problem and gangster traditions/genres, and influenced by hip-hop and US ghetto movies (plus La Haine), it is now sometimes called ‘urban’ film. Examples include Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shank (Ali 2010), Come Down (Huda 2010) and My Brother the Devil (El Haisani 2012). British Asian cinema instead tends to deal with cultural/religious traditionalism vs. secular liberalism, and take the form of social comedies, interethnic romances and Bollywood-style melodrama. In part this is a consequence of a tradition of families attending cinemas together, of British Asians buying and running cinemas that show imported Indian films, and of the role British Indian cinema plays in what has been called pan-Indian cinema – that is Bollywood and other Indian cinemas as well as films produced within the Indian diaspora, such as the films of Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta. Examples include Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha 2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).

In this context of diaspora, Black British Cinema and the emergence of identity politics and intersectionality, we took a look at Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi. Like Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, it is a film uninterested in touristic views of London. Set primarily in a South London working class neighbourhood, it focuses on the complex relationship between a British Asian middle class and a white working class, and in intergenerational tensions between first- and second-generation British Asians, and in the breakdown of Black British identity, during the period of Thatcher and yuppies. Oh, and it is also about a queer interracial romance.

This mixture – and the history of white racist violence it outlines – combines to offer a vision of London, and of Britain and Britishness, that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is right next door to – and a million miles from – Passport to Pimlico. Most importantly, it argues that identities, whether of individuals or groups, of neighbourhoods, cities or countries, are always already diverse, hybrid and in transition.

In the final two weeks of the module, we will read Zadie Smith’s NW (2012).

week 22

Core critical reading: Malik, Sarita. “Beyond ‘The Cinema of Duty’? The Pleasure of Hybridity: Black British Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.” Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema. Ed. Andrew Higson. London: Cassell, 1996. 202–15.

Recommended critical reading
Alexander, Karen. “Black British Cinema in the 1990s: Going, Going, Gone.” British Cinema of the 90s. Ed. Robert Murphy. London: BFI, 2002. 109–14.
Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur, eds, Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Givani, June. “A Curator’s Conundrum: Programming ‘Black Film’ in 1980s–1990s Britain.” The Moving Image 4.1 (2004): 60–75.
Parekh, Bhikhu. Rethinking Multiculturalism. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006.
Pines, Jim. “The Cultural Context of Black British Cinema.” Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr, Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. 183–93.
Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Safran, William. ‘Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return’, Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 83-89
Sawhney, Cary Rajinder. “‘Another Kind of British’: An Exploration of British Asian Films.” Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 58–61.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.

Recommended reading
For contemporary British Asian fiction, try Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Aamer Hussein’s Turquoise 
(2002), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), Zahid Hussain’s The Curry Mile (2006), Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006), Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus (2009), Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material (2013) and Khavita Bhanot’s Too Asian, Not Asian Enough: An Anthology of New British Asian Fiction (2011).
Memoirs such as Zaiba Malik’s We Are a Muslim, Please (2010) are also of interest.

Recommended viewing
British Asian cinema includes Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).
Multicultural Britain is also on display in films such as A Room for Romeo Brass (Meadows 1999), South West 9 (Parry 2001) and Ae Fond Kiss (Loach 2004).

Advertisements

The City in Fiction and Film, week 20: Dirty Pretty Things

dirty-pretty-things-movie-poster-print-27-x-40week 19

This week’s class was a short one (since we had a lot of admin and related things we also had to cover), so it is even more unconscionable that it has taken me nearly three weeks to write it up.

Before discussing Dirty Pretty Things (Frears 2002), we began by considering the notion of diaspora and different kinds of migrancy.

The term ‘diaspora’ – now used to mean the dispersal of people from their homelands to communities in new lands – was originally used to describe the scattering of the Jews from Judea and into the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE (the return from Persia in 520 BCE echoed the earlier exodus from Egypt and settlement in Judea). A second diaspora took place in 70 CE, when the Roman occupiers quashed a rebellion and passed laws banning Jews from living in Jerusalem and Judea.

There are other historical precedents, such as the west African slave trade, which began in the late 1400s, with the first African slaves brought to the ‘New World’ in 1502 (just a decade after Columbus ‘discovered’ the West Indies). This slave trade was essential to the wealth of the British Empire (although Britain likes to emphasise its role in Abolition, rather than in the slave trade and the use of slave labour even after Abolition) and to the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. After Abolition, there was a stream of diasporas into American from Europe (Irish, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Catholic Poles, Russian and East European Jews, Italians) and Asia (Chinese, Japanese). There were also Indian and Chinese diasporas into the Caribbean and South America, often in the form of indentured labour.

Such movements, which continue in the present, produce various categories of migrants:

  • Colonial settlers.
  • Transnational corporate expatriates: economic migrants of an elite managerial class, who work in another country while retaining citizenship in their homeland; they move easily across borders. The news never labels them ‘economic migrants’ though, as that is a tag reserved for condemning poor people.
  • Student visa holders: advanced education in host countries is potentially of great benefit to host country as well as homeland.
  • Postcolonial émigrés: post-independence migrants to former coloniser nation.
  • Refugees: targets of persecution, state violence, retaliation, repression, torture or unlawful imprisonment who have been granted asylum within host country (numbers dropping globally, but only because of increasingly draconian asylum processes).
  • Asylum seekers: those whose application for asylum has not yet been processed (and thus are denied the rights afforded to refugees under international law), which is probably the key reason for making asylum processes increasingly draconian.
  • Detainees: asylum seekers held in detention camps. Iin the 1980s, Cuban ‘boat people’ were welcomed in the US as political refugees from a regime opposed by the US, but Haitians fleeing the bloody, CIA-backed Duvalier dictatorship were detained as merely ‘economic migrants’ (almost 45,000 of them held at Guantánamo by 1994).
  • Internally displaced persons: people forced to relocate to another region of their own country due to violence, civil war, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, religious oppression, famine, disease.
  • Economic migrants: workers responding to push/pull of global economy (depression, recession, poverty, famine at home vs labour shortages in another country).
  • Undocumented workers (‘illegal aliens’): people who migrate for various reasons without the required legal documentation.

There are lots of films that explore these different experiences, including The Exiles (Mackenzie 1961), Black Girl (Sembene 1966), El Norte (Nava 1983), White Mischief (Radford 1987), Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Men with Guns (Sayles 1997), Last Resort (Pawlikoski 2000), Demonlover (Assayas 2002), In this World (Winterbottom 2002), Blind Shaft (Li 2003), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), Silver City (Sayles 2004), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), Blind Mountain (Li 2007), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007), Frozen River (Hunt 2008), Sleep Dealer (Rivera 2008), She, A Chinese (Guo 2009), Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009), Le Havre (Kaurismäki 2011), Out in the Dark (Mayer 2012).

Kevin Foster, who compares films from the Windrush era – Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961) – with Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things argues that such films, for all their apparent concern with the experience of migrant populations are ultimately more concerned with the ways in which their presence impacts upon and is articulated by the domestic population.

what unites the differing treatments of exile and displacement is their common focus on domestic anxieties regarding British national identity. … these films suggest that the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers … are of less interest to British audiences and filmmakers than what is happening to their own countries and themselves. … The new migrants, like their Commonwealth forebears, are of interest to British filmmakers in so far as they provide a focus for the analysis and treatment of essentially domestic political, social and cultural concerns. (Foster 683, 688)

He also outlines a common set of preoccupations in these films: ‘to explore and map the alien space of the here and now’; ‘what it means to lose one’s place in the world’; ‘what it means to lose the cultural identity that anchors one to [the world]’; ‘what it is to be stateless, lost and adrift’; ‘how, under the manifold pressures of migration, families cope, collapse or coalesce, how their traditional structures and roles shift in the face of unexpected circumstances and unfamiliar needs’; the nature and frequency of ‘improvised’ and ‘quasi-familial arrangements’ for support (688).

While this is all rather uncontroversial, his final point is perhaps more difficult to process: for all the often extreme differences between being a white citizen, a citizen of colour and a newly-arrived migrant (of whatever sort), the appeal of such films to the domestic audience lies in some kind of recognition of a shared experience of precarity and dislocation in a country that is becoming increasingly unhomely to the majority of its own citizens. As Foster writes

Britain may still exercise a magnetic attraction to the descamisados of the modern world but it is an increasingly foreign land to its own people, less a home and more like a hotel where every care or comfort comes at a price. (691)

Our own discussion of Dirty Pretty Things began with its view of London. For a film centred around a reasonably classy central London hotel, it is initially surprising that we  see so few tourists and nothing of tourist London: no Big Ben or London Eye or St Paul’s Cathedral or Southbank or Dome. There is also a strong emphasis on spaces of transition – hotel lobbies and bedrooms, taxis, car parks, tunnels, corridors, Heathrow airport; like Boyz N the Hood, this is a film about mobility and entrapment. Moreover, Frears’ colour palette – bright blocks of colour – give it all a slightly unnatural, constructed feel, despite its location shooting and overall naturalism, as if to insist that there is nothing normal or natural about this city. It is manmade, artificial, and so are the economic and social relations that dominate it. (This idea is extended through the image Senay (Audrey Tautou) has of New York, clearly derived from film and television and tourist imagery – a fetishised irreality she both clings to and knows to be false).

The London we see in the film is like the inverse of Notting Hill (Michell 1999), which ethnically cleansed its eponymous location (as subsequent gentrification is also doing). In Dirty Pretty Things, there are (almost) no white people because it focuses on cleaners, night staff, taxi drivers, and so on – the ethnically diverse working class without which the city would grind to a halt but who are typically marginalised.

The other key idea we discussed was concerned with borders. We tend to think of borders as physical locations whereas they are much more complex than that. They are legal constructs which only sometimes coincide with physical locations around the edges of a country. The apparatus of the border also functions within the enbordered territory. The crude, violent aggression of the Immigration Officers who tear apart Senay’s flat looking for evidence that she is working or accepting rent from a subletting tenant, and the laws banning her from earning any income while her case is being processed are just as much the border as the passport control points through which she and Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must pass on their way into and out of the UK. Just as the ‘transnational corporate expatriate’ is never labelled an economic migrant, so the ban on asylum seekers earning an income emphasise the relationship between wealth and the border. It is this function of the border that drives Senay and others into underpaid labour, sweatshops, sexual harassment and a state of constant precarity – and into the grips of organ harvesters…

Next week, we will take a step back in time to an earlier Stephen Frears movie, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and think about it in relation to Black British cinema and second- and third-generation Black Britons.

week 21

Core critical reading: Foster, Kevin. “New Faces, Old Fears: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and British Identity.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 683–91.

Recommended critical reading
Amago, Samuel. “Why Spaniards Make Good Bad Guys: Sergi López and the Persistence of the Black Legend in Contemporary European Cinema.” Film Criticism 30.1 (2005): 41–63.
Berghahn, Daniela. Far-Flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Gibson, Sarah. “Border Politics and Hospitable Spaces in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 693–701.
Lai, Larissa. “Neither Hand, Nor Foot, Nor Kidney: Biopower, Body Parts and Human Flows in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things.” CineAction 80 (2010): 68–72.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Monk, Claire. “Projecting a ‘New Britain’.”, Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 34–3, 42.
Pravinchandra, Shital. “Hospitality for Sale, or Dirty Pretty Things.” Cultural Critique 85 (2013): 38–60.
Wayne, Mike. “British Neo-noir and Reification: Croupier and Dirty Pretty Things.” Neo-noir. Ed. Mark Bould, Kathrina Glitre and Greg Tuck. London: Wallflower, 2009. 136–51.
Whittaker, Tom. “Between the Dirty and the Pretty: Bodies in Utopia in Dirty Pretty Things.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.2 (2011): 121–132.

Recommended reading
Contemporary British fiction about the experience of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe includes Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (2001), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret
(2005), Fadia Faqir’s My Name is Salma
aka The Cry of the Dove (2007), Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007), Rose Tremain’s The Road Home (2008) and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015).

Recommended viewing
British films addressing similar material include Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000), In This World (Winterbottom 2002), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007) and She, A Chinese (Guo 2009). Also of interest are Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Lilya 4-Ever (Moodysson 2002), Silver City (Sayles 2004) and The Terminal (Spielberg 2004).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week 11: the city and modernity – ruins and rebuilding

the-bicycle-thief-movie-poster-1949-1020503611

week 10

This week’s class was centred on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica 1948). We have already encountered postwar ruins and a version of the Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) in The Third Man (Reed 1949), and will watch Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) next week – a bit more festive than most Trümmerfilm and one that segues into the period of postwar (re)construction that will begin next semester.

It is difficult to talk about Bicycle Thieves without also talking about Italian neo-realism, and so the lecture this week also overlaps with some issues being discussed on Film Style and Meaning. James Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003) usefully describes Italian neorealism as possessing

a distinctive formal and aesthetic character of its own (location shooting, naturalistic lighting, long takes, true-to-life stories, unscripted dialogue and the use of non-professional performers). (232)

It would however be problematic to reduce the movement merely to a matter of aesthetics (Chapman doesn’t – I’ll come back to him in a bit), especially when the terms one finds in such lists are this broad and could be applied to so many realist film movements. So before getting into more detail about neorealism, we focused on the specificities of Italy in the closing years of World War II and the immediate postwar period.

Very broadly, then:

Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. In 1925, he abandoned democracy and set up a legal dictatorship. He was ousted in 1943 and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, who set about dissolving the Fascist party and surrendering to the advancing allied forces. In response, Germany invaded Italy and German special forces broke Mussolini out of prison. Italy declared war on Germany; Mussolini became head of the northern Italian Social Republic – a Nazi puppet government. He was captured and executed by partisans in April 1945.

In 1944, the returning exiled leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, promised to pursue parliamentary rather than revolutionary politics, and joined a broadly anti-fascist ‘national unity’ government, which wrote a new constitution, gave women the vote, abolished the monarchy and began to (half-heartedly) purge fascists from office. The Communist Party, had been the mainstay of the anti-fascist partisans and anti-Nazi resistance, and thus it had a certain moral high ground (as well as a million members in 1945). Under the new constitution, the first parliamentary elections since 1922 were held on 18 April 1948 (while Bicycle Thieves was in pre-production).

There were massive housing shortages and unemployment was somewhere between 9% and 20% – and if the Communist Party won, US Marshall Plan aid would have been delayed. The Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican and covertly by the CIA, won. The Communist Party was established as the second largest party.  On 14 July 1948 there was an attempt to assassinate Togliatti. He was shot three times and put in a coma, but recovered. In response, there were massive protests, a general strike, and violent police repression (including by the Nucleo Celere, who we glimpse out of the police station window in Bicycle Thieves, heading out in jeeps to break up a demonstration).

It was against this complex, tense, conflicted and invigorating background that Italian neorealism emerged, and which to an extent accounts for its distinctiveness among varieties of realist cinema – not least because many of the key personnel were communists, or at least antifascists well to the left of the Christian Democrats.

Chapman also outlines some important other factors in the development of the neorealist style. The massive state studio Cinecittà, opened by Mussolini in 1937, had been bombed during the Allied invasion and was closed down, not reopening until 1948 (it was used as a displaced persons camp from 1945-47). At the same time, distribution networks – which had been starved of overseas films – were badly disrupted. Film production and circulation had become extremely localised, and in the absence of studio facilities, location shooting was at the very least a practical decision as much as it might have been an aesthetic one (presumably, professional actors had also been widely dispersed during the war, so there might also have been expedient casting of non-professional actors).

To the aesthetic characteristics listed by Chapman, we might also add a general preference for medium and long shots, which has the effect of embedding characters in social settings and relationships – the American mistranslators of the title, who called the film The Bicycle Thief, rather missed this point, as well as implying the title referred to Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). Additionally, neorealism also tended towards a digressive narrative form (especially in comparison to the Hollywood three-act structure) which arguably had the effect of bringing films closer to the unstructured shape of actual people’s actual lives – a point, as we will see, that André Bazin emphasised in his enthusiastic championing of De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952).

There is of course no consensus on how extensive the canon of Italian neorealist films is – the shortest lists I have seen list usually about eight films, others go up to about sixty.

Either the first neorealist film or the major precursor of neorealism, depending on who you ask, is Ossessione/Obsession (Luchino Visconti 1943), the first adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – which the PCA had forbidden Hollywood to film.

So the other first neorealist film is RomaCittà aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), the story of a partisan and a priest killed during the liberation of Rome. It is generally interpreted as a call for communists and christians to unite in fighting fascism and building a new Italy. It was shot on the streets of Rome, using scavenged equipment and the ends of film reels, which gave it an urgent, grainy look . According to Dilys Powell, the influential Sunday Times film critic from 1939-79,

its impact was partly accidental, the result, not of the director’s art and imagination alone, but also of the accident of poor physical material which gave the story the air of fact.

For Rossellini, however, aesthetics and politics are inseparable, and neorealism was part of a movement to express a

need that is proper to modern man, to tell things as they are, to understand reality, I would say, in a pitiless concrete way, conforming to that typical contemporary interest, for statistical and scientific results.

In 1946, Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan, charted – in six episodes – the relationship between Italians and US troops, from the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 to end of 1944. Again, it is a film that could not have been made by Hollywood – the US troops are often drunk, the third episodes features a woman who works as a prostitute, and the second episode of is centred on an African American soldier.

In the same year, De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine began to shift the focus of neorealist film’s away from the war and onto the problems of postwar reconstruction. This is also the focus of Bicycle Thieves, as well as Visconti’s La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) and Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (1949), which are both concerned with rural settings, with fishermen and rice farmers.

Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves in these terms:

The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the film shows no extraordinary events such as those that befall the fated workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories … Truly an insignificant, even a banal incident … Plainly there is not enough material here for even a news item: the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. … the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. ( “Bicycle Thief” 49-50)

He also described it as a communist film, but one that avoided being mere propaganda

Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. … events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis – but the thesis emerges fully armed and irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. (“Bicycle Thief” 51, 53-3)

Arguments about the canon often start with Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951) – they are clearly building on neorealism and breaking new ground, but is that new ground somewhere outside of neorealism’s ambit?

No such uncertainty exists about De Sica’s Umberto D., though. It is a deeply digressive story, or non-story, about an old man living a meagre existence. He has a dog, Flike. He contemplates suicide, but first tries to find a new home for Flike. It is a film which Bazin praised for its refusal of ellipsis – for the way it leaves in all the bits classical Hollywood filmmaking would cut out (as in this four-and-a-half-minute scene of the maid making coffee). Nothing at all of significance happens. Apart from the details of her routine, glimpses of her character and a reminder of her dilemma – and so of course it is full of actions and significance.

Bazin saw this as the pinnacle of Italian neorealism – as close as any film got to eliminating the actor (through the casting of non-professionals), miss-en-scène (through abandoning the artifice of the soundstage for the ‘reality’ of location shooting – to be honest, he is not always very good at spotting when things are shot in the studio) and story (eschewing the tightly-plotted classical narrative in favour of the disclosure of the everyday). While conceding that it would never be as widely appreciated or as well liked as Bicycle Thieves, he argued that

It took Umberto D to make us understand what it was in the realism of Ladri di Biciclette that was still a concession to classical dramaturgy. Consequently what is so unsettling about Umberto D is primarily the way it rejects any relationship to traditional film spectacle. (Bazin “Umberto D” 80)

Italian neorealism is normally said to end with Umberto D or perhaps Rome 11.00 (Giuseppe De Santis 1952) – a film I have never managed to see, but which sounds (and from film stills 280px-Romaore11_fotoscenalooks) awesome, although its influence is still at work in films as late as Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957) – a film which I ended up misdescribing as being about ‘a prostitute who looks for love in a van’. Of course, I meant ‘in vain’.  And ‘a woman who works as a prostitute’.

Neorealist films were not great hits with Italian audiences, whose cinemas were being flooded with Hollywood product. They were attacked by the Catholic Church as unsavoury (rather than because they were anticlerical, or at least did not hold a high opinion of the church), and they were attacked by politicians because of the negative image of Italy they promoted internationally (not because they were, on the whole, left-wing films critical of the failures of Italian politics). But some of them were also major international successes, winning many festival awards as well as Oscars, and played a key role in the development of arthouse cinemas and circuits, especially in the US.

Before screening the film, I asked the students about Bazin’s claim that the message of the film is that ‘in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive’. Is this what the film says? If so, how? If not, what does it say instead? Can a film be reduced like this to a mere ‘meaning’?

I also asked students to return to the ideas we have been considering (since Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’) around the individual and the crowd – are these the only options? What about families? The neighbourhood? The church? The community party? What role do they play in mediating between – and in creating – the individual and the crowd?

Thinking back to Man with a Movie Camera, how does Bicycle Thieves depict leisure and labour?

And think about the film’s depiction of Rome. This is not the tourist Rome of, say, Roman Holiday (William Wyler), full of images of classical ruins and Renaissance art and architecture (though it is often shot with yards of such locations). Why does it eschew such sights? And why do other films focus so strongly upon them?

In the end, a lot of our discussion focused on the significance of Antonio’s bike – a muscle-powered forms of transport, halfway between the rural world of hand- and animal-drawn vehicles, and the coming modernising decade of Vespas and Lambrettas and Fiats. One of the sharpest contrasts is between Antonio, who needs a bike so he can work and provide for his family, and the racing cyclists who are wealthy enough to own bikes for leisure purposes. (This is part of the film’s argument about the flawed nature of capitalist social organisation.)

There is also the moment early on when Antonio is told he must have a bike and:
a) he lies, saying it is broken rather than that it has been pawned, even though when we see the pawn shop it is obvious everyone else is living on meagre credit, too;
b) none of the other unemployed men, who are not eligible for this particular job, who clearly state that they have bikes, offer to lend theirs to him.

This lack of communal solidarity stands in stark contrast to the way in which the family and neighbours of the guy who stole Antonio’s bike leap to his defence. This incident ties to the film’s argument through architecture. The Val Melaina, where Antonio and his family live is a borgate built for working class people who were forcibly displaced from the centre of Rome when Mussolini destroyed working class neighbourhoods in order to construct the avenues around the Coliseum, St Peter’s, etc. (This also had the advantage of removing antifascist and  potentially antifascist workers to a distant periphery – a move echoing the Haussmanisation of Paris.) These apartment blocks – which we see have no inside water supply – were ‘completed’ in 1933. They were five miles from the centre of Rome, separated from the city by non-urban space, and surrounded by open land. They had few services and poor connections with the city. Under such circumstances, the communal ties of the densely packed urban neighbourhood, with its multigenerational extended and intertwined kinship networks, and compounded by the dislocations and losses of war, came under increasing strain. Community gives way to the individual and the nuclear family; and that is not necessarily a good thing – as we will see in the first half of next semester as we encounter narratives of suburban conformism (from Douglas Sirk, Don Siegel, Ray Bradbury) and urban alienation (from Jean-Luc Godard, JG Ballard, William Klein, Martin Scorsese).

Core critical reading: Gordon, Robert S.C. Bicycle Thieves. London: BFI, 2008. 82–98.

Recommended critical reading
Bazin, André. “Bicycle Thief”, What is Cinema? Volume II, ed. and trans Hugh Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press 1972. 47-60.
–. “Umberto D: A Great Work”, What is Cinema? Volume II. Ed. and trans Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress 1972. 79-82.
Cardullo, Bert. “Actor-Become-Auteur: The Neorealist Films of Vittoria De Sica.” The Massachusetts Review 41.2 (2000): 173–92.
Celli, Carlo. “Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves.” The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellina. London: Wallflower, 2004. 43–52.
Cook, Christopher. Ed. The Dilys Powell Film Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neo-Realism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gold, John R. and Stephen V. Ward. “Of Plans and Planners: Documentary Film and the Challenge of the Urban Future, 1935–52.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 59–82.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapters 5 and 8, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut” and “The City as Queer Playground.”
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Tomasulo, Frank P. “Bicycle Thieves: A Re-Reading.” Cinema Journal 21.2 (1982): 1–13.

Recommended reading
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) offers an estranged vision of post-war London combining slums, bombsites and towering new architecture.
Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) depicts the young working class women living in the post-war slums of Battersea and Clapham Junction; Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is also of interest.
Two useful accounts of social housing and postwar reconstruction are Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2012) and John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014).

Recommended viewing
Short documentaries about slum living, new housing and other urban developments include Housing Problems (Anstey and Elton 1935), The City (Elton 1939), The City (Steiner and Van Dyke 1939) and Land of Promise (Rotha 1946).
Utopia London (Cordell 2010) outlines the vision of a group of modernist architects to rebuild London as a more pleasant and equal city, while Riff-Raff (Loach 1991) and Estate, A Reverie (Zimmerman 2015) chart the destruction of such developments.
Post-war London bombsites play a key role in films such as Hue and Cry (Crichton 1947), Obsession aka The Hidden Room (Dmytryk 1949) and The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953). These are Trümmerfilm (‘rubble films’), that is, movies made and set in the ruins of postwar cities. Others include The Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946), the Italian neo-realist Germany Year Zero (Rosselini 1948), Odd Man Out (Reed 1947), The Third Man (Reed 1949) and Ten Seconds to Hell (Aldrich 1959).
Up the Junction was filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965 (and rather less interestingly for cinema by Peter Collinson in 1968). Also of interest are Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), adapted from Dunn’s 1967 novel of the same name, and his influential television drama Cathy Come Home (1969). Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) begins – in part – as a drama about the post-war replacement of slum housing with tower blocks and concludes with the problematic privatisation of public housing.